Broken information in a post-truth society

Looking at cracking patterns; some strictly personal reflexions regarding social networks, the state of journalism, populism arising and Internet advertising

During the last few years social networks determined an increased information complexity, in addition to other phenomenons (i.e the Internet’s sick revenue system), therefore new patterns have arisen: disinformation, trolls, hate and populism, just to name few. These, like other problems (i.e. cybercrime, terrorism, global warming) are complex problems, that:

[…] in contrast to tame problems that can be standardized, classified and solved through routine procedures […] they are characterized by their open nature, their unstructured “messiness”, multi-dimensionality, systemic roots and lack of known solution. […] They are unstructured, open-ended; they are multi-dimensional, systemic and may have no known solution […] the problem can not be isolated and separated from the system […] that can be isolated, tackled and solved in a linear fashion.

— Joss Colchester, “Wicked Problems,” in Complexity Academy, May 7, 2015

Because these problems cannot be isolated and separated from the whole system, they can only be understood as emergent phenomenons when local components interact: patterns emerges only when the system itself is stimulated. This also means two things: first, no one can figure out where the current situation is coming from and second, in hindsight, it’s easy to explain why things have happened (this is called retrospective coherence).

Dysfunctional patterns: one practical example

I am a populist party and I’m reinforcing my propaganda with fake news. Among these ones there are some about the dangers that come from immunizing your kids. What happens? The system become stimulated and new pattern emerges: more kids are dying every year because of their parent’s vaccine-phobia alimented by social networks disinformation. The more political parties push their propaganda, the more fake news spread across social networks, the more the vaccine-phobia increases. This phenomenon is called positive feedback loop (but in this case is a bad thing despite the term “positive”):

Positive feedback is a process that occurs in a feedback loop in which the effects of a small disturbance on a system include an increase in the magnitude of the perturbation. That is, A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A.

The point is that no one could ever imagine the results of their actions and, that’s why in complexity what we do can produce huge, unintended consequences. Another relevant point here is the non reversibility. Once formed, patterns cannot be eradicated.

[…] combating vaccine skepticism is not easy, because even the countless studies by innumerable health groups affirming that there is no link between vaccines and autism have failed to penetrate the fog spread by Mr. Grillo and his ilk. The Italian measles outbreak, unfortunate as it is, does give health authorities an opportunity to strengthen their case by pointing to concrete evidence of what inevitably follows when vaccinations drop off.

— The entire article from NYT can be found here

Related phenomenons: the coach of the day after

Populist parties and populism representatives are strong because they are good at talking cheap. As I mentioned above, explaining things in hindsight is pretty easy and they’re damn good at it. They just add some falsehoods, and here it is a good recipe to attract consensus.

Regarding explaining things in hindsight, the most common example that anyone should be able to understand is football. Everyone can talk about football, right? Have you ever heard the old say “after the match everyone is a good coach”? Well, this is a great example of discussing about patterns that are coherent in retrospective: it’s pretty easy after a match judge tactical decisions, so the day after, everyone of us can be a great coach.

In complexity correlation doesn’t implies causation. In other words, even if some phenomenons or behaviours appear correlated to us, this doesn’t mean that they are direct causes of the current state, and that’s why soccer is a bar talk. Again, populist parties are good at make people believe that correlation implies causation, and everyone with the “right informations” can be an expert. In my opinion this is an amplification of the well known attitude “even my cousin can do it, reading a guide on the Internet”. We are simply shifting from this perspective to another one (wider and more dangerous):

Everyone can be a politician, a pilot, a doctor or a coach, and nowadays it seems legit to make people decide, vote or take important decisions through the web (despite their domain knowledge). Looking at the Italian situation, for some populists a web-based direct democracy seems to be a kind of panacea, but I think that just looking at Facebook or Youtube hate-comments you can have an idea of whom’s hands we are putting our future into.

The role of social networks

This cheap-talk phenomenon occurs everywhere on social networks when people discuss about complex problems like global warming, immigration, meat over-consumption, war or politics. Therefore nowadays Internet is full of “fake experts” always judging and providing solutions about every hot topic I mentioned above. Because of the social networks role, the influence and the resonance of poor opinions is pretty amplified. The point with the people promoting shallowness is that they are spending A LOT of energies trying to find a direct cause-effect link because they see correlation (that again, doesn’t implies causation) and, because of “the coach of the day after effect”, it seems easy to analyze and arguing about patterns that are only coherent in retrospective.

Nowadays we are led to believe that complex phenomenons (where cause and effects are not repeatable, and are only explicable in hindsight) are obvious one (in other words, knowable, where cause and effects are repeatable).

Again, coming back to football examples: rules are obvious (if there is a foul in penalty area, then a penalty kick will follow) but team dynamics are complex (after the first leg it seemed obvious that PSG would won the match, but it didn’t).

The same is for the peace in the world (everybody wants it, obvious, right?) but the dynamics to make this real are complex. These principles are completely ignored when talking about politics, economy or social distress (as I mentioned above, these are complex problems).

Moreover, the populistic movements are arrogant enough to believe that they can shape the future, just by putting in place certain actions, and so believe their electorate (bad culture is contagious more than the healthy one). Unfortunately, this far from true when dealing with complexity: we can not predict, neither design future or ideal states.

A quick parenthesis on aggressiveness

When discussing on social networks (especially with the “experts” I’ve just mentioned above) I noticed a tendency to extremism. Usually there are no pacific discussions: it is more like facing another hooligan faction in a kind of ideological war. Moreover, I find more difficult to have a constructive dialogue with friends of mine through chats or social networks rather than in front of a fresh beer. Usually on social networks people don’t behave like they would normally do in real life. In my opinion the reason behind this behaviour is that we activate patterns in the brain upon certain actions.

The oldest experiment ever: try to cross your arms. Simple, right? Now try to cross your arms the other side. Pretty weird, don’t you think? The point is that brain need time to re-set itself: when driving the car, aggressiveness suddenly kicks in. On the other hand, our road perception changes if we are pedestrian or drivers. Changing clothes changes the way we think too, the same seems to happen when we log into Facebook, Twitter or whatever. When publishing a status or commenting an article, we activate patterns in the brain, and so for some people aggressiveness kicks in.

The critical thinking is fading away

Let’s face it: Internet’s primary purpose failed. The idea of a world-wide collaborative community is pure utopia right now and constructive dialogues are so rare. Since the social networks adoption on a large scale, several years are passed, and the way we consume information and form opinions has radically changed over time: according to this research conducted on 920 news outlets and 376 million users:

Content consumption on Facebook is strongly affected by the tendency of users to limit their exposure to a few sites. Despite the wide availability of content and heterogeneous narratives, there is major segregation and growing polarization in online news consumption. News undergoes the same popularity dynamics as popular videos of kittens or selfies.

— “Anatomy of news consumption on Facebook”, Ana Lucía Schmidt, Fabiana Zollo, Michela Del Vicario, Alessandro Bessi, Antonio Scala, Guido Caldarelli, H. Eugene Stanley, and Walter Quattrociocchi.

When I was an high school student, I always admired my philosophy’s teacher work because she tried to teach us the importance of critical thinking, and in my opinion this should be the ultimate goal of an educational institution, which schools are supposed to be.

Confining their attention on a limited set of informations sources, nowadays people are reinforcing their confirmation bias, contributing to the extinction of critical thinking. In addition to this, some others valuable considerations:

  1. Social networks discussions usually lead nowhere: people understand metaphors. but do not language as well as metaphors, that’s why clear statements or large post-explanations (like this one I’m writing) are pretty ineffective.
  2. We are not built to handle reality
  3. We all live inside a bubble which twist our perceptions

It’s not a matter of enriching each other with different perspective and views anymore: it is just like a fight between factions.

It’s not a matter of enriching each other with different perspective and views anymore: it is just like a fight between factions.

We have a problem with some newspapers

The interaction between articles reading, revenues’ system, Internet advertising, social network and newspapers crisis formed a new pattern: newspapers themselves are chasing social networks, so as a side effect the information that they provide is influenced by the mass. Because information industry is losing readers and money, to face this problem and to keep their audience, newspapers provide their readers with what they want to read, instead of giving a reasonable exposition of truefacts.Moreover in order to create a form of addiction, journalism is getting more and more emotional. The state of art is that poor contents has more appeal than valuable ones and for some newspapers this is a good thing because of the revenues coming from the clicks.

There is a huge part of Internet that is pure crap that gets click and money.

The Five Star Movement controls a network of official sites and supposedly independent news outlets that spread misinformation across the internet.

Buzzfeed’s article can be read here

Personally speaking I know people that raised companies with useless websites that are promoting articles like “the top 10 scariest thing ever recorded by a camera”. Several companies built their entire business model on clickbaiting and fake news/crap contents advertising.

Many newspapers understood this game:

The impact on journalism of the crisis in the business model is that, in chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity, news organisations undermine the very reason they exist: to find things out and tell readers the truth.

Katharine Viner, How technology disrupted the truth

The problem with this phenomenons is that they occurs on the edge of a thin-gray line between information and pure garbage, and it is really hard for people to discern the two aspects; the result is that during the last years we have became more and more vulnerable to lies and manipulations.

Dishonesty in politics is nothing new; but the manner in which some politicians now lie, and the havoc they may wreak by doing so, are worrying.

Yes, I’d lie to you (Economist)

Actually, we have a situation in which populism is strong and media lost their credibility due to their wicked monetization politics. People got it and that’s why they prefer read up blogs, Facebook and doing “information snacking” that also implies sharing stuff only after having read the title. On the other hand, some politicians understood this mechanism pretty well and also know how to use this weapon on occurrence:

So here we go again, these bad patterns which have arisen are reinforced by feedback loops.

Humanity fragmented

A friend wrote this:

My wall is constantly polluted with sometimes ironic, sometimes direct, hateful, racist, fake news from pages managed by untraceable owners. Facebook “original sharing” and personal updates are down every day, leaving space for just a bunch of ignorance propaganda.

— “Dear Facebook it’s time you open up” by Francesco Zaia

This has lead to a permanent social network war which, combined with poor newspapers information, is fragmenting humanity as a whole. As human sense network we spot things that individuals don’t, but human being fragmentation is lowering our anticipatory awareness (the characteristic that trick us to be more attentive to a certain problems).

We evolved for clan-type sense making not individual sense making [..] In high uncertainty conditions early spotting is the key [..] we can’t anticipate the future, but we can trigger human awareness when something is plausible to happen.
— Dave Snowden

The lowering of our anticipatory awareness, prevent us from spotting the danger of these arising populistic movements. The more we fail to understand this danger, the more it grows.

Dumb mice, bright mice

Just a note on neuroplasticity and culture to conclude this post: our gray matter can shrink or thicken and neural connections can be reorganized by forming new ones or can get weaker. The brain rewires itself using what we learn. In addition:

If you give bright mice, dumb mice to bring up, the children of the dumb mice are bright. Culture changes chemicals which activate or deactivate DNA. Within one or two generations, culture can change biology.
— Dave Snowden

So, which kind of people we will bring up in the next generation?



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